The relative tranquility enjoyed by Costa Rica, in comparison with other countries in Central America, has been offset in recent years by a wave of homicides that hit the country as a result of growing national and transnational organized crime.
And although authorities have managed to somewhat reverse the situation, there is still a long way to go.
In 2017, Costa Rica reported the highest homicide rate in its history, a total of 603 cases, equivalent to a rate of 12.1 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants.
In 2018, with 585 victims, Costa Rica managed to reverse the upward trend and the homicide rate fell to 11.7. In 2019, with a total of 560 murders, equivalent to a rate of 11 for every 100,000 residents, the homicide rate experienced a small but significant reduction compared to 2018.
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However, in the first two months of 2020, the figures was less encouraging. According to the Judicial Investigation Department (Organismo de Investigación Judicial - OIJ), 106 homicides were reported as of March 2, while there were 91 cases during the same period in 2019.
According to Programa Estado de la Nación (State of the Nation Report), an organization that promotes human development in Costa Rica and Central America, approximately 89 percent of the homicide victims were men, with handguns being the most commonly used weapon.
InSight Crime Analysis
The murders are concentrated in strategically important areas for national and transnational organized crime.
The districts that consistently reported a homicide rate greater than 20 per 100,000 inhabitants between 2003 and 2018 were Limón, San José, Garabito, Orotina, Tibás, Pococí, Matina and Corredores, according to 2019 data from State of the Nation Report.Fuente: State of the Nation Program, 2019; side by side maps illustrate the pattern between homicide rates (left)and drug seizures (right).
State of the Nation Report found that locations of drug seizures, mainly marijuana, closely mirrored the locations of homicides. These regions also generally have the least economic opportunities, high unemployment and high rates of poverty.
This correlation is particularly strong in the provinces of Limón, Heredia and Cartago, followed by San José and Alajuela.
Different officials and investigators interviewed by InSight Crime agree that a significant percentage of the murders in the country are related to disputes between criminal groups over the control of local drug markets, or "tumbes," a term used for the theft of drug shipments.
One prominent example of this came after the capture of drug trafficker Marco Antonio Zamora, alias "El Indio," in 2012, when Luis Ángel Martínez Fajardo, alias "El Pollo," decided to split off from the Zamora gang. This opened the door to a bloody fight over the control of drug sales in San José, leading to a considerable increase in homicides, especially as of 2014.
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However, the number of homicides related to organized crime have declined in recent years. "[Today] less than half [of homicides] are related to organized crime," according to Limón's public prosecutor, Manuel Jiménez. "But it was not like this a few years ago, when most of the homicides in the country were linked to organized crime."
Both Security Minister Michael Soto and prosecutor Jiménez told InSight Crime that constant operations and interventions at critical hotspots for violence, weapon seizures and the arrests of criminal gang leaders led to a decline in murders in 2018. While this weakens the gangs, most continue functioning with their leaders being behind bars.
"We have noted that, although we remove the head, the most important part of the organization will always continue," says Jiménez.
Additionally, the homicides are becoming less tied to organized crime, as "[the organizations] are learning that violence is bad for business," he explained.